The Wilson Quarterly

Americans are notoriously bad with geography, and our own borders are no exception. Oft forgotten is the fact that the United States is an arctic power, with the entirety of Alaska’s northern coastline comprised of frozen tundra and frigid seas. The numbing cold has not precluded certain countries, the U.S. included, from venturing into the alabaster abyss, which is fast becoming a geopolitical hotspot. Here are six reasons why you should be paying more attention to the polar region.

1. Climate change is creating both disaster and opportunity

The melting of polar ice is quickly destroying the Arctic ecosystem and slowly making Venice the next Atlantis as rising sea levels submerge coastal areas. Since 1970, 17 percent of the Arctic’s sea ice has melted, and by 2040, the portion of the Arctic that remains frozen year round will be contained to the Last Ice Area — a few remaining ice blocks near Canada and Greenland. As the ice disappears, economic opportunity emerges. In the coming decade, energy companies will invest a projected $100 billion in the Arctic. Investors from all over the world will flock north to harvest a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, as well as the zinc, copper, gold, and diamonds that lie below the Arctic’s surface. Commercial investment in the Arctic will be accident-prone, as ships and equipment operate in unfamiliar conditions. It’s a bitter irony, noted NPR host Arun Rath: “Ice that’s been cleared by climate change [is] allowing companies to dig for more fossil fuels.”

2. Territorial disputes remain unresolved, and the U.S. has not ratified a treaty that could help

The U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland have all claimed territory in the Arctic. Give each of these nations a map, and they would draw eight different, overlapping borders. Disputes remain over whether the Arctic Ocean should be entirely international waters, precisely where cargo ships can sail, and who owns Hans Island (essentially an enormous rock).

As climate change melts polar ice, countries have placed additional claims on waters adjacent to their coastlines. Of the five nations that directly border the Arctic, four of them — Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia — have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The treaty gives ratifying nations exclusive economic zones 200 nautical miles out from their terrestrial boundaries. UNCLOS also allows countries to submit claims to continental shelves, extending the area in which a country can mine resources. The U.S. has signed but not ratified the treaty. Since the treaty went into effect in 1994, critics in the Senate have stood arms-crossed and obstinate, maintaining that UNCLOS forces the U.S. to cede too much authority to an international institution. The U.S. Navy, the Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations, commercial interests, and most everyone else agree that UNCLOS would benefit the U.S., and that refusing to ratify the treaty only weakens U.S. stature in Arctic negotiations.

3. Russia is building an Arctic Army

Scattered along Russia’s northern coastline is the country’s Northern Fleet — an assortment of battleships, ballistic missile submarines, nuclear attack submarines, and, for good measure, an amphibious hovercraft. Founded during the Cold War, the Northern Fleet has proliferated in recent years thanks to President Putin’s reopening of Soviet bases and restructuring of military command. The Northern Joint Strategic Command now controls both the surface and a submarine fleets — together an 80-vessel enterprise. While 40 to 70 percent of the fleet is not currently operational, says Russian navy expert Dmitry Gorenburg, five naval deployments are conducted in the Arctic each year. And although economic sanctions have stagnated ship construction — as contractors are unable to procure precision tools from Germany or gas turbines from Ukraine — Russia has continued to expand its arsenal of submarines. Russia’s new nuclear attack submarine model has impressed even U.S. Navy officials with its sophistication.

Analysts have called this Putin’s “Arctic Pivot” — a long-term venture to bolster military presence in the Arctic as melting ice exposes more waters to patrol and more resources to extract. Most recently, the Northern Fleet has flaunted Russian military capability in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict: 5,000 NATO troops underwent cold-weather training in Norway near the Russian border this March — an exercise reportedly planned before the Ukraine crisis began. Russia responded with an exercise of its own — 38,000 troops, 41 ships, and 110 aircraft of the Northern Fleet took part.

4. The U.S. has one operational icebreaker

Compared to the other Arctic nations, the U.S. lags far behind in infrastructure and investment. The U.S. has yet to build a single port in the Arctic, and the Coast Guard possesses only two diesel icebreakers, with one in operation. Russia’s coast guard, by contrast, boasts a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers that rarely require refueling and has a reported 14 icebreakers under construction.

While the U.S. Navy’s submarines are experienced in ice-encrusted waters, its surface and air forces are less so. In a 2014 report, the Navy concluded that in its current state, it could realistically maintain a presence in the Arctic only in summer months. Moreover, the U.S. Senate’s continued failure to ratify UNCLOS forces the Navy to navigate waters in which they are not always welcome.

The Navy seems to be aware of the asymmetry of its Arctic capability as it prepares to train in “war games” in the Gulf of Alaska this summer, which will be the Navy’s largest exercise in the Gulf to date. Environmentalists warn that the Gulf’s water and wildlife face a great risk as tens of thousands of pounds of ammunition are about to come raining down. The war games will continue regardless, in what appears to be a warm-up for the “Arctic Race.”

5. Espionage is rampant

Ninety-five percent of the Arctic has not been charted by modern standards. Among the unmapped territory is Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain believed to contain the lion’s share of Arctic oil and gas deposits. To conduct research and extract resources at Lomonosov, Arctic nations must submit a claim to the United Nations to prove that their continental shelf extends into the mountain. As such a bureaucratic endeavor is slow-moving, countries are playing spy games while they wait. Stealth submarines, drones, satellites, and eavesdropping bases have proliferated in the area. “The Arctic,” writes Foreign Policy’s James Bamford, “has become the crossroads of technical espionage today.”

In the midst of the spying, countries have formed alliances that are convoluted and vary by issue. Canada had a tiff with Russia in 2007 after a titanium Russian flag was placed on contested seabed, but both states agree that certain portions of the Arctic are “internal waters,” out of which foreign vessels cannot pass without permission. The U.S. disagrees with Canada on this, but at the same time the countries share their Arctic intelligence. Much of the U.S. intel is collected at one of the most remote and classified buildings in the world: the Thule Air Base, which operates satellites that fly over Russia’s portion of the Arctic every 90 minutes. The increasing pervasiveness of espionage in the Arctic has the trappings of a new Cold War — but this time, the name isn’t only metaphorical.

6. The U.S. recently became Chair of the Arctic Council

If the previous points sound ominous, or at least worrisome, don’t lose hope yet. In April, the U.S. began its two-year stint as Chair of the Arctic Council, an international forum comprised of the eight Arctic nations. The U.S. has drawn criticism in past years for conflicting policy directives among its agencies. With its current chairmanship, however, the U.S. finds itself in a position to refine its policy, navigate the Council through the issues of an increasingly accessible Arctic, and perhaps rally the Senate to finally ratify UNCLOS.

In May, the U.S., Russia, and three other Arctic nations signed a fishing agreement, despite the events in Ukraine having delayed the process. With this development, the current trend of cooperation in the Arctic was reinforced. “Some people call this Arctic exceptionalism,” explained World Wildlife Fund spokesman Clive Tesar. “We can have our disagreements elsewhere, but in the Arctic, we have to cooperate.”

And yet, considering the march of climate change and circling commercial and military interests, the future of “Arctic exceptionalism” is far from certain. The Arctic race may yet have a winner.

* * *

Laura Kurek is a contributor to the Wilson Quarterly.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Read Next

Interactive Map: Undocumented, Unaccompanied, and Underage